RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: The story according to Steve Poltz

Steve Poltz will be on the Bluesville Stage at 6 p.m. on July 4.

Steve Poltz has always been a Los Angeles Lakers fan. That makes sense because he’s lived most of his life in Southern California.

“But I jumped on the Raptors bandwagon big time this year because it’s Canada and I was born in Canada.”

As is his way, the interview with the singing, songwriting, guitar playing, storytelling Poltz quickly moved to Kawhi Leonard who can only be described as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

“I love that quote,” Poltz said. “I apply it to Bob Dylan.

“I opened for him and I didn’t meet him. My friend Jewel opened for him and had a funny encounter with him that makes me laugh to this day.”

And before you knew it, Poltz showed why he is well known for his ability to spin a yarn — something that will be on display on opening day of the RBC Ottawa Bluesfest.

Jewel, who was once Poltz’s girlfriend and songwriting partner (she’s still a friend today) has opened for Dylan too. After one concert, “he knew, she yodelled and he sent her a boxed set of Jimmie Rogers,” aka the Singing Brakeman.

“She got it, thinking ‘Wow, Bob Dylan sent me this,’ she told me when I was living with her.”

Jewel opened for Dylan again, Poltz said.This time the tour manager warned her she wouldn’t likely get to meet Dylan, adding “‘Don’t ask to meet him and don’t even look at him if he has his hoodie on’.”

After the first night, she ended her set playing her famous song Who Will Save Your Soul. After leaving the stage, the tour manager said that Dylan wanted to see her before he went on stage.

“She went into a room, there was one entrance, and Dylan was sitting there. There was a light bulb hanging down and two chairs in a white room. It was almost like an interrogation.

“Dylan is facing the door and Jewel is facing Dylan.”

Dylan asked Jewel if she had received the “gift I got you. She goes ‘Yeah, the box set of Jimmie Rogers.’

“Dylan says, ‘I thought you’d like that because you yodel’ and then he goes ‘How come you didn’t thank me?’

“She goes, ‘I didn’t know how to reach you. What am I going to do look up Bob Dylan in the yellow pages.’ He goes ‘You could have called my secretary’.

Then he says, ‘How come you didn’t play Who Will Save Your Soul tonight? She goes ‘I did play it.’

They go and forth on that topic, Poltz says, and then she looked down and looked up and he was gone.

“She didn’t see him leave. It was like he was an apparition. That’s my Bob Dylan story.”

The story of Poltz’s family is equally entertaining.

Poltz’s mother was from North Sydney, Cape Breton. The family was very poor and she left the island to seek a better life in Montreal. That’s where she met Steve’s dad, who is the son of Hungarian immigrants who made their way out west picking crops.

Poltz recently did a show in Sydney, Cape Breton. It was a memorable moment.

“When I go back there I feel her spirit and I see her face in the eyes of other people who live there.”

His dad was in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was based at Greenwood near Halifax. That’s where Steve was born.

After a few years, a mighty snowstorm hit Halifax and “Dad had had it. He had to dig his car out and he slipped and his head bashed on the car.

“Mom had wanted to try something new. She wanted to go to California. Dad came in that morning and said ‘We are outta here’.”

They drove across the continent with $500 and Poltz’s father got a job and the family settled in the San Diego area.

He’s much more Californian than Canadian, but he was raised with “my dad saying ‘You’re Canadian.’

“He made sure I kept my Canadian passport and my U.S. one and he always cheered for Canada in the Olympics. When the Blue Jays won the world series, he went nuts.”

His father was happy with the Raptors win too. Poltz’s mom died in this past December but his father is living in a seniors’ residence where he entertains the ladies by reciting Shakespeare.

After the family was settled, his mother’s brother Louis moved in.

“Uncle Louis was a gay man. In the mid-1960s, you didn’t want to be gay in Cape Breton, so he flew to California and lived with us.”

Poltz attributes his musical life to Uncle Louis.

“He took me to the Hollywood Bowl as a little kid. I got to see Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan. One show sticks out. He took me to see a classical guitarist named Julian Bream and that blew my mind. After that I wanted to learn classical guitar.”

And so he did. Somewhere along the way he a guy named Rob Driscoll while singing in the choir at San Diego State.

“We were complete idiots, total smart asses.”

“He was just as idiotic as I was.” They would turn the verses of the Agnus Dei into a punk poem such as: “Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world every day Give ’em back…

“We both realized we were kind of like the Smothers Brothers. I grew up watching them. Tommy Smothers was my spirit animal.” They would form a band called The Rugburns.

These days Poltz has a new album called Shine on and he lives in Nashville, a city he swore he’d never move to.

He loves going to festivals such as Bluesfest.

“There are so many people willing to walk by and you can convert a lot of new fans. Any chance I get to meet new crowds, my goal is always to go in there and convert the room, sell them some merch and have them show up the next time I play in Ottawa and Wakefield.”

The last time he was at Bluesfest, he played the Barney Danson Theatre. Outside Rush was launching their set on the main stage with the song Tom Sawyer.

“I couldn’t wait for my set to end so I could run out and catch Rush because I had never seen them. I wasn’t a Rush fan but I have been converted. Those guys are so Canadian. I love them.”

It’s a demanding life but he’s not stopping.

Proof. About four years ago Poltz suffered a stroke and took few months off.

“I was playing and I lost my vision.  Somehow I survived it and here I am. I recovered pretty quickly but I was shell-shocked” for awhile. “It makes you appreciate life” and the friends you have.

“It can seem daunting, but I have done it for 30 years. I have a cool cult following but the key is you can’t stop. You can’t take two years off because the booking agents just forget about you.

“You gotta offer the audience something, take them on a journey and entertain them. The fact that they show up to see me still blows my mind.”

True to his philosophy, Poltz does a “couple hundred dates” a year.

“I’m 59 and and turning 60 in February. I still feel 20. Rather I think I feel like I’m 20. Actually my back hurts sometimes and my fingers hurt. My ego is writing cheques, my body can’t cash.

But he loves it. “The reason I love it … it has taken me so long to get where I am. And so far next year is always better and I meet someone new.”

One of those people is the singer-songwriter. He met him after moving to Nashville and recording Shine on with Will Kimbrough, who plays guitar with Crowell.

“I’m on a cruise ship with (Crowell) next February. My goal would be to write a song with him.”

He was reluctant to move the Nashville, but he has settled in well.

“Why didn’t I do this 10 years ago? I don’t want to be anywhere else now.”

After this interview he was headed to hang out with Jewel for a few days.

“We are old friends. We need to write some more songs together. She’s so funny and irreverent.” One of their most famous collaborations is the huge hit song You Were Meant For Me (1996).

Steve Poltz
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Bluesville Stage
When: July 4 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.